The California Recall and Mail-in Voting

September 16, 2021 8:04 p.m.

From a distance, I hadn’t focused on the importance of mail-in voting for the result of Tuesday’s California recall election. I am not saying that Newsom owes his win to that. I think the more important factors are the ones we discussed yesterday. But it clearly played some role in sky-high turnout for an off-schedule election. Articles in the LA Times and NY Times illustrate some of the dynamics.

California has continued with a temporary, COVID-era mail-in voting regime. In the recall every registered voter who had voted in a recent election was mailed a ballot. You could also vote in person. But basically every regular voter could vote by dropping a ballot in the mail – a very easy choice and easy lift for anyone who wanted to.

It’s notable that at the outset of the pandemic this temporary plan had strong bipartisan support. But in the face of Big Lie activism, Republicans have turned against it. The most recent extension of the temporary system was on a party line vote. This is partly Big Lie activism. But it’s also unsurprising based on what we know about voting in general: Republicans benefit disproportionately from low turn out elections. They also benefit disproportionately from long wait times at polls. Some of this is by design. Some is simply that Democrats tend to be in high population precincts and Republicans are in more suburban or rural areas. It’s no surprise that making it really easy to vote is not great for Republicans. We know this from everything we know about how elections work in the US.

The two articles I linked above are from before election day. But they report that the state legislature is passing a law to make this system permanent. Presumably Gov. Newsom will soon sign that bill and it will be in effect next year.

It’s no mystery why Donald Trump made mail-in voting the centerpiece of his Big Lie activism, before and after election day. So much of the politics of voter suppression turns on various ways to make voting harder: No early voting. Fewer drop off points for ballots. No Sunday voting. If everyone votes on one day you’re inevitably going to have lines, confusion, questions that can’t be resolved on election day. It’s like pushing a lot of water through a small pipe. The pressure on the water increases and only so much water can get through the pipe at one time. Most of the politics of voter restriction turns on increasing that pressure, dialing up the scarcity. Vote by mail changes all of that. It doesn’t just reduce scarcity. It short-circuits the whole ecology of voter restriction. Obviously I’m not the first to notice this. That’s the whole point. But you can see why it amounts to an existential challenge to Republicans who’ve placed all their bets on controlling the size and shape of the electorate.

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The biggest threat is that, as I understand it, vote by mail has been wildly popular in the half dozen or so states that have adopted it. Some people still prefer to vote in person. One of the articles I linked above mentions that in California young voters and Hispanic voters tend to want to vote in person. The optimal policy really is to provide both options, though I guess if there’s less and less demand for in-person voting, the logic of funding in-person apparatus keeps diminishing. But these problems seems largely self-correcting.

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